by Brett Larner
It's you, baby. Shinobu Kubota brings Komazawa University home to its 9th national title in 17 years. Click photo for video highlights of the race.
After a few shaky seasons Komazawa University head coach Hiroaki Oyagi reconfirmed his position as Japan's most successful university coach with his ninth National University Men's Ekiden Championships title on Nov. 6, the 17th major ekiden win in his 17 years at Komazawa. Responding to Izumo Ekiden winner Toyo University and defending champion Waseda University's unprecedented 10 sub-29 men lineups last season, Oyagi has built a squad this year which features 11 men with sub-14 5000 m PBs, sub-29 10000 m PBs, or both, five of them with 10000 m times under 28:33. Toyo did its best to match Komazawa's challenge and almost pulled it off but could not quite cope with Komazawa's superior speed on the shorter of the ekiden's stages. Despite Oyagi throwing a curveball by only running six of his big guns and putting relative unknowns on the sixth and seventh stages Komazawa won the 8-stage, 106.8 km championships in 5:15:46 with Toyo within sight in 5:16:19. A snaggletoothed Waseda was a distant 3rd in 5:21:06.
Unseasonably high temperatures in the mid-20's and high humidity made for tough conditions, especially in the second half of the race when the sun broke through the clouds. There were no new records, although a few men came close. Komazawa was at the forefront throughout the race, winning four of the stages and finishing third on the other four stages. After 28:03 junior Hiromitsu Kakuage finished 3rd in a sprint finish at the end of the First Stage, Second Stage Komazawa runner Kenta Murayama, the first 1st-year to win the National University Track & Field Championships 5000 m since Toshihiko Seko, took the lead with a strong surge late in the stage. Murayama finished only 3rd on time behind enigmatic ekiden ace Takehiro Deki (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) who came closer than anyone else in the Championships to setting a new stage record, falling just 5 seconds short after passing 10 people, and National University 1500 m champ Suguru Osako (Waseda Univ.), but putting Komazawa physically out front provided the momentum for Komazawa's next three runners to win their stages. By the end of the Fifth Stage Komazawa had a commanding lead of 2:08.
Toyo's first two runners, identical twins Keita and Yuta Shitara, were solid if below regular form, putting Toyo in 6th by the end of the Second Stage. Senior Hiroyuki Uno brought them into position on the Third Stage, advancing to 2nd overall as he ran the second-fastest time on the stage behind Komazawa's 28:02 sophomore Ikuto Yufu. Toyo's next two runners finished 3rd and 2nd on their stages on time, keeping Toyo in 2nd but losing ground to Komazawa. Behind them, Waseda struggled after a 12th-place breakdown by star 1st-year Shuhei Yamamoto on the First Stage. By the end of the Fourth Stage they had advanced as high as 3rd where they would remain for the rest of the race.
With three stages to go and a deficit of 2:08 Toyo's sixth and seventh men had to make up around 40 seconds each on Komazawa in order for anchor Ryuji Kashiwabara, one of the most famous runners in Japan thanks to his three years of heroics on the Hakone Ekiden's brutal uphill Fifth Stage, to have a realistic chance of catching Komazawa anchor Shinobu Kubota, the winner of the anchor stage at last month's Izumo Ekiden. Toyo senior Kenji Yamamoto did his part, picking up 37 seconds on unknown Komazawa 1st-year Shugo Nakamura. It was up to Seventh Stage Toyo man Takanori Ichikawa, brilliant at Izumo, to do the same against the unaccomplished Taichi Takase. The only senior on Komazawa's Nationals squad, Takase was running his first ekiden after having lost years to a fractured femur. With no credentials to his name Takase looked as though he would be devored by the smooth and efficient Ichikawa, but, running on his 22nd birthday, he pulled it off. Rolling and twisting as he gutted it out, Takase opened 9 seconds on Ichikawa to win the stage, a critical move that left Toyo anchor Kashiwabara with a nearly hopeless 1:40 to make up over 19.7 km.
Which is not to say he didn't try. Kashiwabara's anchor run was one of the best three performances of his career to date, behind only his two Hakone Fifth Stage records. As leader Kubota cruised along efficiently in safety mode Kashiwabara hammered it out, picking up 6 seconds in the first km and growing closer and closer. With 3 km to go he was within 29 seconds of Kubota; when Kubota responded and opened the gap back to 31 seconds Kashiwabara surged again and came within 27 seconds. Kubota had a kick in reserve and took the margin back up to 33 seconds in the last km to give Komazawa the win in 5:15:46, but despite the tough conditions and hopeless situation Kashiwabara never gave up and brought Toyo home in 5:16:19, the only school to run faster than at last year's record-breaking race in perfect conditions. Kashiwabara also pulled off the stage best, beating last year's stage winner Benjamin Gandu (Nihon Univ./Kenya) by a solid 46 seconds.
Waseda was almost an afterthought as it finished 3rd in 5:21:06, 9 minutes slower than last year and almost caught by Nihon. After a perfect season last year in which Waseda set course records at all three major university ekidens, head coach Yasuyuki Watanabe seems to have returned to his familiar cycle of squandering the talent on his squad with overtraining injuries. At this stage Waseda looks like a write-off for January's main event, the Hakone Ekiden. Komazawa vs. Toyo, on the other hand, looks very compelling after today. The longer stages at Hakone, averaging nearly 21 km for each of the 10 stages, favor the stable Toyo squad, but with Oyagi still holding five of his aces in reserve he has plenty of room left to counter and maneuver.
Chuo University took 5th behind Nihon. The top six teams qualify for the following year's Nationals. The other big story of this year's Nationals was the team that took 6th place. Jobu University. Running at Nationals for the first time and coached by Waseda coach Watanabe's former college teammate Katsuhiko Hanada, Jobu was running back in the grey zone between 8th and 10th through the race when its Sixth Stage runner, no-name junior Rikinobu Watanabe, blasted the second-fastest time on the stage to move Jobu up to 4th, one of the best performances of the Championships. Jobu dropped to 5th on the Seventh Stage and 6th on the anchor stage, but weaving unsteadily with 28:00 Tokai University star Akinobu Murasawa bearing down on him in the last km anchor Hayato Sonoda held on to cross the line in 6th, guaranteeing Jobu a place at next year's Nationals and securing Hanada's position as one of the most promising under-40 coaches in Japan. Both Murasawa and Meiji University's 27:44 man Tetsuya Yoroizaka, the two top-ranked Japanese university men, underperformed, each finishing 4th on his stage. Partly as a consequence Tokai and Meiji both missed out on the seeded bracket, finishing 7th and 8th after having had good runs at October's Izumo Ekiden. Both have their work cut out for them for Hakone.
2011 National University Men's Ekiden Championships
22 teams, 8 stages, 106.8 km, Nagoya-Ise, 11/6/11
click here for complete results
Individual Stage Winners
First Stage (14.6 km) - Hirotaka Tamura (Nihon Univ.) - 43:38
Second Stage (13.2 km) - Takehiro Deki (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 37:43
Third Stage (9.5 km) - Ikuto Yufu (Komazawa Univ.) - 27:13
Fourth Stage (14.0 km) - Wataru Ueno (Komazawa Univ.) - 40:56
Fifth Stage (11.6 km) - Kazuhiro Kuga (Komazawa Univ.) - 34:15
Sixth Stage (12.3 km) - Kenji Yamamoto (Toyo Univ.) - 36:22
Seventh Stage (11.9 km) - Taichi Takase (Komazawa Univ.) - 35:23
Eighth Stage (19.7 km) - Ryuji Kashiwabara (Toyo Univ.) - 57:48
Top Team Results - top six seeded for 2012
1. Komazawa Univ. - 5:15:46
2. Toyo Univ. - 5:16:19
3. Waseda Univ. - 5:21:06
4. Nihon Univ. - 5:21:54
5. Chuo Univ. - 5:22:21
6. Jobu Univ. - 5:23:44
7. Tokai Univ. - 5:24:26
8. Meiji Univ. - 5:26:22
9. Aoyama Gakuin Univ. - 5:27:55
10. Josai Univ. - 5:30:55
11. Teikyo Univ. - 5:31:32
12. Kyoto Sangyo Univ. - 5:32:36
(c) 2011 Brett Larner
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